Do Drugs and Alcohol Cause Violent Behavior?


Alcohol use has repeatedly been found to be correlated with violent behavior; for example, more than 50 percent of the perpetrators or victims of murder and other serious violence (as well as of lethal automobile accidents) have alcohol in their bloodstreams at the time; diagnosed alcoholics commit violent crimes at a much higher rate than do their nonalcoholic peers; a large percentage of violent criminals are alcoholics (although an equally large percentage of nonviolent criminals, i.e., property offenders, are also).

There is, however, no simple, one-to-one relationship between alcohol use and violent behavior. Studies on the psychopharmacology of alcohol use and violence suggest that the relationship between the two is a complicated interaction among biological, psychological, social and cultural factors. For example, there is some evidence that small amounts of alcohol taken quickly temporarily increase, and high doses temporarily decrease, aggressive behavior in many animal species, including primates and humans. Nevertheless, there is nothing inevitable about this in humans, and “ethnographic research on alcohol use suggests . . . that its role in violence depends on drinkers’ expectations and on cultural norms — even binge drinking is commonly observed in some non-European cultures without violent aftermaths.” A self-fulfilling prophecy has been observed here in a variety of settings: When an individual or a culture expects alcohol use to be followed by violence, it more often is. When violence is not the expectation, or when it is not accepted or approved of, it tends not to follow alcohol use.

What about other drugs? The National Academy study says: “Taking marijuana and opiates [including heroin and other narcotics] in moderate doses temporarily inhibits aggressive and violent behavior, withdrawal from opiate addiction, however, may lead to heightened aggressive and defensive reactions.” So the assumption that a “war on violence” requires the prevention of marijuana and heroin use is simply mistaken, looking at the pharmacological effects on violence alone, without considering other factors. In fact, the most effective way to prevent violence from heroin use would he to make sure that heroin is available to the withdrawing addict — from a purely pharmacological standpoint.

The same appears to be true, for the most part, of the other psychoactive drugs:

“Long-term frequent use of amphetamines, LSD, and PCP has changed a few individuals’ neurochemical functioning in ways that induced violent outbursts, but examples are extremely rare except among users with preexisting psychopathology. No evidence has yet established direct neurobiologic links between violent behavior and acute or chronic use of powdered cocaine. However, more research is urgently needed on the pharmacological effects of smoked cocaine or “crack,” which enters the brain more directly.”

In short — and this is by far the most important finding of all that is known on this subject: “For illegal psychoactive drugs, the illegal market itself accounts for far more violence than pharmacological effects.” Thus, the “war on drugs” appears to be a self-generating war. Outlawing drugs, with the consequent decrease in their supply, followed by the increase in their cost, generates the illegal market — and all the violence that follows from that.

Since the war on drugs victimizes mostly those who are young, poor and/or black, and benefits mostly organized crime, it might be said to be a war on the young, the poor, and on blacks, a method of stimulating violence, and a very expensive means of subsidizing organized crime, boosting the employment of police and correction officers and border guards, and subsidizing the construction industry by promoting the building of more and more prisons. One could also wonder whether it is not, wittingly or unwittingly, a means of distracting the white middle class voting public from recognizing and ameliorating the real poverty and misery that are endemic in the central-city ghettoes.

Source: “Do Drugs and Alcohol Cause Violence?,” from Violence: Reflections on Our Deadliest Epidemic, by James Gilligan

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